¿Qué pasó en Chile? (What Happened in Chile?)

El año en que nací  (The Year that I was Born) by Argentine playright, Lola Arias, showcases the stories of parents and grandparents during the Pinochet dictatorship.  The actors (not all professionals) are the sons and daughters born between 1971-1989. I was fortunate to attend a live performance on January 19, 2014 in Philadelphia. This production was sponsored by FRINGE ARTS. Here is a trailer from another production:

The piece is more “testimonial” than a drama in the traditional sense. It weaves real stories of the actors’ families in a tapestry of representational and presentational scenes. Rather than a realistic narrative or a stylized dramatization, depicted behind a fourth wall, it is a series of vignettes, and sometimes makes  use of storytelling, rather than role-playing.

The production exploits modern technology and audio-visual effects. The play is performed in Spanish (the native language of all the performers) with English supertitles projected above the stage. A camera/projection system is rigged in order to enlarge and project authentic newspaper articles, photographs and other items onto a large screen. Additional props include student desks, chairs, lockers, electric guitars and amps, food, tables, desks and a bicycle.

The strength of El año en que nací is its ability to impart so much factual information about Chile during that era in a non-judgmental fashion.  The cast includes people of various social classes and ideologies, which would clash in any real life confrontation. It was part of the director’s/creator’s vision to feature such diversity.

One of the most effective techniques employed in the play was the “line up,” which was used a few times.  Characters were asked to line up chronologically according to their ages, with respect to political ideology (left to right), social class and skin color.  It became evident how ridiculous some of these attempts to classify were, and how biased and/or nuanced these distinctions could be. For example, is someone more “left/right” because of what he/she believes, or because he/she followed orders and killed a lot of people in the name of said ideology? Rather than tell us this directly, or use a more heavy handed or didactic approach, they depicted this polemic in the “line up.” The “line up”, the protest and the eating scene are the “stories within a story/play within a play” or the representational acting.In other instances, the acting is presentational. The fourth wall is broken and the actors present or seem to tell their stories directly to the audience.

The manner of storytelling had a certain detachment and was not overtly emotional or melodramatic. There were some jokes but rarely does one feel the sadness or devastation that surely these family members experienced. An exception is the highly charged protest scene. The fourth wall is in place and we are transported to the streets of Chile.  Water gun wielding police, sirens, protestors waving placards, chairs flying–it all results in a loud big cacophony of sound and motion. The audience senses the confusion and danger of such protests through this depiction. Later, a particularly poignant moment was when one of the cast revealed that her mother had stopped speaking to her because of this play. At that instant we are stunned with the gravity of the situation–those years were so groundshaking and the legacy of the period still impacts young Chileans today to the point that participating in a theatrical work about it would estrange a mother and daughter.

El año en que nací left me wanting to research the newspapers mentioned in one of the first stories: “Patria y Libertad” and “Puro Chile”. The play gave me more insight into what these families had endured under Pinochet, and how Chile has since developed. The election of Michele Bachelet seems to have been good for Chile–yet Chileans are very insecure about the future. The play  itself is a process–the stories change as the politics change,  and the actors discover more about their family histories. The script changes the next time around. So only “time will tell.”  Perhaps, this is the most profound message of El año en que nací–that history is personal, and not set in stone or paper. People’s ideas and memories are always morphing in tandem with circumstances and perspectives on historical events. The Pinochet era meant one thing to him, and another to her, and the meaning transforms as life transforms us.